Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

The world is awash with ideas. And that’s not surprising, according to cognitive linguist Prof Steven Pinker.

Our universal human abilities to think in metaphor, and to combine thoughts in new and innovative ways, result in a ceaseless geyser of novel ideas and new ways of expressing them, he says in The Stuff of Thought.

“People can discover new metaphors in their efforts to understand something, and can combine them to form still newer and more complex metaphors and analogies…

“With the use of metaphor and combination, we can entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs.”

All kinds of techniques have been used to encourage creativity, to help people to unplug the “idea geyser” and let the metaphors flow.

And Clean Language is one that can work very well here.

I’ve often used it with business groups, asking people to come up with a personal metaphor. For example I might ask: “When you’re working at your best, you are like… what?” (a Clean-ish question devised by Training Attention)

We’d then use The 2 Lazy Jedi Questions to explore the metaphors as they developed and deepened… or perhaps, were rejected in favour of a different metaphor.

For as Pinker points out: “People are not handcuffed to a single metaphor when thinking about something but can switch among them, sifting for the best match between the relations among the concepts in the metaphor and the relations between the things they are trying to understand.”

The geyser flows most effectively when participants grasp that there are no right or wrong answers, allowing them to relax into their own “reality”. Using their exact words in your questions, and suspending judgement, tends to support this process.

And – note to beginner Clean Languagers – that means going along with them if they decide to swap horses in midstream!

(I’ll blog another day about those times when a developed metaphor transforms itself into something else during a changework session, which is rather different.)

Of course, not all ideas are good ideas. “A man is not necessarily intelligent because he has plenty of ideas, any more than he is a good general because he has plenty of soldiers,” as Sebastien-Roch Nicolas De Chamfort apparently said.

There’ll certainly be a time to switch from Imagineer to Realiser and then to Editor. But a ceaseless geyser of ideas can be a great place to start!

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